by Tom Gibbs
Roughly ten years ago I was forced to make one of the most difficult decisions of my life, and for a multitude of reasons, sold my analog-based big rig, and replaced it with a home theater-oriented system that was less than one-tenth its value. Gone were the Magneplanars, Classe monoblocks and preamp, high-end CD transport and outboard DAC, and most of all, my prized Linn turntable and cartridge. I also sold most of my LPs, holding onto a scant fifty or so treasured titles that I considered irreplaceable, even though prospects of ever playing them again seemed rather dim at the time. My musical life, it seemed to me, was pretty much over, and I spent precious little time listening to anything that remotely resembled music.
The years that passed between then and now found me facing a variety of challenges financially, including my wife’s ongoing battle with cancer, and putting my daughter through a prohibitively expensive private college. But overall, life has been pretty good to me, and I’ve managed to weather all this so far without having to file for bankruptcy – yet. And I’ve taken an almost radically less elitist approach to my music-listening obsession; while I still dream about winning the lotto and filling a palace with ghastly expensive electronics, I’ve become much more firmly rooted in my own reality. Over the years, with thrifty shopping at mostly second-hand audio salons, I’ve managed to rebuild my system in piecemeal fashion, including the addition of SACD playback. And while it still is, in essence, a home theater-based experience, I’ve managed to build in the option for higher resolution multichannel and two-channel listening as well. While I realize that my current setup could never hold a candle to my former system, I’ve become very comfortable with its ability to accurately deliver satisfying and realistic multichannel and stereo musical experiences.
The whole SACD experience fundamentally changed my thoughts and approach toward listening to music; there are some incredibly well-recorded SACDs out there, and the opportunity to listen to classic performances, such as the three-channel Mercury and Living Stereo discs has been nothing short of a revelation. And while the SACD situation has gotten a little murky over the last year or so, there’s enough new music coming out to keep me perfectly happy with a digitally-based music system for a long time, right? Well, yes, maybe – at least, that is, until my wife recently surprised me with an early birthday present – a new turntable!
Yes, that’s right, a new turntable – I guess she really was paying attention after all when I’d told her about the offers of review copies of recent LP releases I’d received from both Classic Records and Sundazed. And while I was initially a little concerned with how the new table would interface synergistically with the system – how needlessly we sometimes worry! It’s been a slam-dunk – with the LPs slamming any and everything coming in competition. The last six weeks have been miraculous to say the least – talk about a fundamental change in my approach to listening to music – and an excellent opportunity to compare some recent SACD releases of classic RCA Living Stereo recordings to their vinyl counterparts.
Of the first three LPs I received from Classic Records, two of them, Respighi’s Pines of Rome/Fountains of Rome and Strauss Waltzes have just been released in multichannel SACD counterparts; the third LP, Stokowski’s Rhapsodies was released as an SACD last year. I have waxed poetic about the superb quality of the RCA Living Stereo SACD releases, and it’s inarguable – these are the highest incarnations in digital-disc format that we are ever likely to see of these excellent recordings. Whether listening in stereo or three channels, the experience is revelatory, easily shaming any previous Red Book CD versions. Most of the discs offer generous playing lengths, and are priced attractively anywhere from 10 to 13 dollars. So, pray tell, how does the vinyl compare?
It’s undeniable that there’s an intoxicating allure associated with vinyl; just holding these fabulous 200 gram black beauties in your hands transports you to another place and time, long before the record’s started playing. And when the needle hits the groove, the real magic begins; the deja vu you thought you were experiencing a moment earlier becomes the real thing when you’re freakishly transported back to a cold, wintry day in 1950s Chicago Orchestra Hall, or other fantastically similar destinations. To hear is to believe; the experience, in a word, is incredible – these vinyl treasures are miles beyond anything currently available, taking the listening experience exponentially to the next level.
First up is the Fritz Reiner/CSO classic Strauss Waltzes (Classic Records LSC 2500-200), in comparison to the BMG-Sony SACD Vienna, which culls four tracks from the LP release: Vienna Blood, Roses from the South, Treasure Waltz and Thunder and Lightning Polka. While some may find this often-played repertory a bit too schmaltzy, I find it darn near irresistible. At first listen, the SACD sounds really superb through the stereo layer, and switching to three channels seems to fill the soundstage more effectively by giving the overall image a bit more even spread. Everything about the presentation is first rate; the strings have an overall sweetness that totally belies their digital origins, and climaxes – especially on the speaker-busting polka – are truly thunderous. I did a lot of A to B comparisons, frequently switching between LP and SACD, and noticed right away that regardless of playback level, the LP offered the superior listening experience. With every aspect that the SACD offered superb performance (with the exception of the ability to listen in three channels), the LP bettered the SACD, and the differences weren’t subtle. There was just more of everything – Classic’s LP had a better and more well-defined soundstage presentation, offering a much more palpable sense of reality that even in three channels the SACD couldn’t touch. There was much more of a sense of recreation of the recorded acoustic, with huge front-to-back and lateral imaging – you’re in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall. Of course there was some groove modulation noise occasionally present in the LP, but nothing too distracting. Even some occasional pops and ticks were not enough to push any of my buttons – listening to the LP was so much more involving, it made me oblivious to any mechanical shortcomings of the disc, and I found myself just getting lost in the music.
The above observations were mostly also true for the next disc in my survey, Respighi’s Pines of Rome/Fountains of Rome (Classic Records LSC 2436-200). My comparison here focused not only on the recently released SACD (which also offers the added bonus of Debussy’s La Mer also featuring Reiner and the CSO), but I also had the 180-gram original Classic Records pressing of the Pines/Fountains disc as well. With regards to LP versus SACD, and not wanting to sound like a broken record, the LP just ran rings around the SACD with regard to every aspect of the listening experience. Even against three channels, the stereo 200-gram LP was able to retrieve the last nuances of the performance, such that the stereo LPs’ presentation was just so much more dynamic than the SACD. The soundfield just extended beyond and behind the speakers in a way the SACDs couldn’t match. My main surprise here was in the differences between the 180-gram pressing and the much newer 200-gram pressing of Pine/Fountains. My 180-gram pressing is among Classics’ earliest output, featuring their very first vinyl formulation – which I personally feel is just flat out inferior to their current Quiex 200-gram pressings. And it hasn’t been played for a very long time, so I expected it to be in pristine condition – which it was. But in playback terms, it was much, much noisier, and had somewhat restricted dynamics compared to the 200-gram vinyl. Something that I noticed about the time I ceased listening to vinyl ten years ago was that Classic’s original vinyl formulation just seemed to me to get noisier with every play – even markedly so. The opposite seems to be the case with the 200-gram pressings – the background just gets even quieter every time I cue the record up, and in terms of flatness of the pressings and trackability – the 200-gram discs are the clear winners. As with the Strauss disc, the 200-gram LP brought me closer to the music in this timeless classic.
Finally comes Leopold Stokowski’s classic Rhapsodies (Classic Records LSC 2471-200), also as compared to the SACD release (from 2005) and the original Classic Records 180-gram vinyl. This thoroughly enchanting disc covers the full range of emotion, from the fiery intensity of folk-based rhapsodies from both Liszt and Enesco to the lyrical joyfulness of Smetana’s Moldau and Bartered Bride Overture. Of course, the 200-gram vinyl trounced everything for pure listening pleasure – once again, I was really dismayed at how badly my original Classic pressing fared noise-wise compared to the more recent vinyl. My only real caveat with any of the newer Classic releases appeared with this particular recording – the disc arrived slightly scratched on side two. The gentle, winding intro to the Moldau has a repetitive pop for about the first 30 seconds, which comes about as darn close as anything to pushing me into the outer limits. This disc was an unsealed review copy, and may have been mishandled prior to my getting it. I’ve ordered several other 200-gram pressings from Classic recently, and had nary a problem.
So, overall, how has my reintroduction to vinyl been? Well, vinyl isn’t without its limitations. Even the 200-gram records are not completely noise free, with occasional ticks and pops. Compared to digital media, vinyl must be handled rather a bit more gingerly and cleaned occasionally. There’s the stylus care to be mindful of, and of course, one has to jump up after every side to change the record. Boy, have I gotten lazy after ten years of nothing but shiny silver discs! But even with the mechanical shortcomings of an acoustic medium, these newest LPs from Classic Records offer a level of musicality that’s untouched by any other format. Some may find the 30-dollar asking price prohibitive; but for those who have the wherewithal and playback equipment, no finer listening experience can be had, at any price. While the SACDs offer incredible bang for the buck, the LPs are truly the real deal, offering the listener unparalleled realism. All of these discs are very highly recommended! Thanks, again, to Peele Wimberley at Classic Records, www.classicrecords.com